Art by María Blanchard, Liubov Popova, Mainie Jellett, and Alice Bailly
Your Laughter Is My Trauma:
Hannah Gadsby and the Comedic Art of Emotional Manipulation
I'm a winner, I'm a sinner
Do you want my autograph?
I'm a loser, what a joker
I'm playing my jokes upon you
—Supertramp, Breakfast in America
The trouble with a classicist: he looks at a tree
That's all he sees, he paints a tree
The trouble with a classicist: he looks at the sky
He doesn't ask why, he just paints a sky
The trouble with an Impressionist: he looks at a log
And he does not know who he is, standing, staring, at this log
And surrealist memories are too amorphous and proud
While those downtown macho painters are just alcoholic
—John Cale and Lou Reed, “The Trouble with Classicists”
And, oh, I'm not going back to the assholes that made me
In a perfect display of random acts of hopelessness
I wish I could stay, but I think we're all ready
I think we're all ready
And I feel nothing, not sane
It's a hard day for dreaming again
—Rilo Kiley, “Paint’s Peeling”
I. Who’s That Lesbian?: Nanette Comes to Netflix
If you haven’t yet heard of Nanette, you will, doubtless, soon. And not only will you hear of it, but you’ll be reminded, constantly, that watching the one-hour comedy special, performed by the Australian lesbian comic Hannah Gadsby, on Netflix, will be a life-changing experience and that you will be in tears by the end of it. You might wonder: how could comedy, surely designed to make me laugh, leave me in such a state? And why would someone go to so much trouble to do all that and still call it comedy?
Aha, you’ll be told: that’s because Nanette is not comedy, but something that breaks all the conventions of the genre. In fact, you would be remiss to call it that, and equally remiss in calling Gadsby a comic.
Before your mind completely shatters from all this, dear Reader, a quick primer on the Nanette phenomenon: At the start of the show, Gadsby tells us a story that begins on a note of menace, of waiting for a bus one night and flirtatiously chatting up a woman whose boyfriend, mistaking Gadsby for a man, threatened to beat her up, screaming “Fuck off, ya fucking faggot!” When he realized his mistake, he quickly backed off with the words: “Sorry! I don’t hit women. I got confused: I thought you were a fucking faggot.” As Gadsby puts it, defusing the tension of the moment with a wry comedic sneer, she left him alone but thought to herself, “What a guy! How about you don’t hit anyone!”
Towards the end of the show, Gadsby reveals that she had in fact hidden the truth of what happened: the man returned, saying: “Ah, I get it, you’re a lady faggot. I’m allowed to beat the shit out of you.” As she describes it, quivering with rage and sorrow: “He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. And I didn’t report that to the police and I did not take myself to the hospital and I should have. And you know why I didn’t? Because I thought that is all I was worth...And that was not homophobia pure and simple, people, that was gendered. If I’d have been feminine, that would not have happened. I am incorrectly female, I am incorrect, and that is a punishable offence.”
This moment leads to Gadsby’s now-famous declaration that she would be leaving comedy, as she reveals more abuse: “And this tension, it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what it feels like because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time because it’s dangerous to be different. To the men in the room I speak to you now...pull your fucking socks up…It was a man who sexually abused me when I was a child, it was a man who beat the shit out of me when I was seventeen, and it was two men who raped me when I was barely in my twenties...This is why I must quit comedy, because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger…what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger. I don’t want my story to be defined by anger. All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story.”
“Trauma has almost always been a precondition for queers and women to enter into public discourse.”
All of this is now cast and frequently discussed as Nanette’s contribution to culture at large: a refusal to let comedy simply serve as comedy and, instead, let trauma and the recital of the same serve as a mass catharsis that will, apparently, allow us all to understand queers and women in particular much better.
Trauma has almost always been a precondition for queers and women to enter into public discourse: there is no coming out without providing a narrative of having been bashed, or raped, or brutalized in some way, and women are not permitted to inhabit public spheres without having demonstrated at least some evidence that they have been physically and emotionally wounded. If you are a queer and/or a woman of color, trauma is an absolute requirement for any degree of success: without a story of tragedy and trauma, even the richest and most powerful black woman in the world, Oprah, who constantly reminds us of her sexual abuse and her early pregnancy, would never have been granted her social and political ascent into power. If not stories of trauma, women of color must, at the very least, tell stories of struggle. Consider that Michelle Obama, the product of a relatively comfortable middle class family that was also part of the Chicago south side Democratic machine, and who went on to Princeton and Harvard, still feels compelled to paint her childhood in terms that resonate with wishful white fantasies of a poor black family pulling itself out of poverty. Trauma is what guarantees authenticity, and without authenticity there is no entrance into public life. Even in seemingly private lives, those without trauma narratives are constantly asked to draw detailed images of the suffering they have endured. Increasingly, a woman without a tragic story is no woman at all. Trauma has been sacralized, taking the place of motherhood and wifedom.
In this context, Nanette tells a very particular and emotionally performed story of a queer woman who, as she tells it, was mocked and humiliated because she deviated from norms of gender and sexuality. In the course of her storytelling, Gadsby visibly tears up and her voice begins to shake: the effect is of a woman viscerally reliving the trauma of what happened, as if we were there in the room as someone divulged a long-buried secret. All the legible signs of authenticity are present, and in an era when we are admonished to “believe all women,” anyone (like this writer) who dares to critique or analyze Nanette as anything other than an unimpeachable and authentic visual record of a public breakdown is likely to be pitchforked as an unfeeling jerk.
“To think critically of Nanette allows us to consider how we might give women and queers and everyone else ways to think about trauma without having constantly to perform the mind-numbing and draining task of re-enacting it for the benefit of others.”
Nanette is discussed as if it were a spontaneous event filmed by startled onlookers holding up their phones to record it as it unravelled in public, even if viewers are, of course, aware that this is not the case But lost in the conversation is the degree to which it is a carefully crafted performance, which Gadsby tested and tried in all its parts in front of several live audiences before it became a Netflix show. In that sense, it is both a performance of authenticity, and a work of authentic performativity. It simultaneously tells you, “This is real, a true story of what happened,” and “Watch how I make all this seem real to you.” This is not to dispute the details of Gadsby’s story. Rather, it is to suggest that Nanette is a performance embedded in cultural and political prescriptions about gendered and sexualized authenticity; to consider how the show shapes our sense of belonging, community, citizenship and being in the world. Instead of simply taking for granted that nothing about Nanette can be critically appraised because it seems to speak to so many at the same time and because it shows a lesbian crying in public, we need to ask why it became so successful, to unravel its unseen ties to several institutional and structural histories that led to its creation because, ultimately, Nanette furthers the idea that only trauma can authenticate women and queers. To think critically of Nanette allows us to consider what the alternatives might be, how we might give women and queers and everyone else ways to think about trauma without having constantly to perform the mind-numbing and draining task of re-enacting it for the benefit of others.
But before we understand the myriad ways in which Nanette crystalizes so much, we have to understand how it became so popular and laid claim to so much, as a curative text for our times. This is not to deny that Nanette was popular in its own right, or to insist that literally millions of people were duped into liking it. But Hannah Gadsby had been performing the show for quite a while before it became a Netflix special. What made it such a potent part of cultural conversations, to the point where it is now seen as something that radically transforms comedy itself? The answers lie in a combination of factors: a media landscape that is simultaneously much larger than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago and also much more consolidated, leaving critics without any real independence with which to do their jobs; a long tradition of lesbian comedy that is ridiculously and bizarrely unfunny but suffused with a sense of social justice; a #MeToo backlash in the arts that looks radical on the surface but evokes deeply conservative ideals about art and creative work.
“Like chicks in a nest craning their necks towards mother birds, we wait for predigested opinions to be stuffed into our gullets.”
On the face of it, we have what looks like a “Golden Age” of media criticism. But the proliferation of criticism and analysis belies a simple fact: very few critics dare to express views that are out of step with what readers demand. Contemporary readers, encountering a TV review through a social media portal, want the quick and dirty take. Is it good or bad? Should I watch it or not? Does it conform to my political ideology or will it make me feel like a bad person? Contemporary critics oblige them with op-eds or op-edlike approaches to criticism. Journalism itself, especially in the age of Trump, has become reduced to simplistic narratives about good versus evil. When the New York Times published a “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” a nuanced and thoughtful profile of a neo-Nazi in late 2017, readers were up in arms. Incapable of understanding the function of a profile (which has a long history in journalism), they could not discern between the op-ed they wanted and a piece that set out to present the social and cultural conditions that foster such extreme ideology. Readers today have very little sense of genre, and no sense of what reporting or criticism or analysis should look like. After all, we are assured, anyone with a laptop, some recording software, and wifi can do all of the above! What’s being missed in all the apparent democratization (not in itself a bad thing) of media production is that nearly everything written these days needs to look like an opinion and those opinions cannot be out of step with the zeitgeist. We can only understand that which is already understood; like chicks in a nest craning their necks towards mother birds, we wait for predigested opinions to be stuffed into our gullets. Hence the backlash against the Times reporter for not having written a piece that looked more like a social-justice-woke piece, preferably with this title: “The Nazis Are Amongst Us and They Will Eat Your Children in the Dead of Night.”
This general lack of discernment and readerly sophistication has affected cultural criticism as well, where critics must now seek and describe and evaluate all cultural production in terms of predetermined narratives of what is most woke. As evidenced by the vitriol hurled at even a venerable Black critic like bell hooks, who dared criticize Beyoncé and Lemonade, some figures are beyond reproach and their work simply cannot be evaluated.
The intensity of Nanette’s emotional pitch makes it nearly impossible to approach it with anything other than reverence and the sense that it is practically a miraculous natural event. How do you, faced with so much apparent grief and torment, offer anything remotely like a critique of what you watch unfurl without seeming like an asshole?
But despite the personal connection so many viewers feel with it, Nanette is not an intimate one-woman show in a tiny, somewhat dingy theater: it is a globalized media event that demonstrates the shifts in cultural conversations around gender and sexuality, and it appears in the thick of drastic changes to the media landscape. There are few bigger agents of such change than Netflix, the corporation directly responsible for the Nanette phenomenon and which has poured increasingly larger amounts of money into comedy as a selling genre.
II. The Emperor Has No DVDs
Why don't you sit right over there, we'll do a movie portrait
I'll turn the camera on and I won't even be there
A portrait that moves, you look great I think
I'll put the Empire State Building on your wall
Watch the sun rise above it in your room
Wallpaper art, a great view
—John Cale and Lou Reed, “Style It Takes”
Netflix is like that old corner video store that used to exist in the neighborhood, the poky, dark one with slim pickings, the stale scent of patchouli and weed in the air, and a clerk who would emerge, with some irritation at being called to perform any function at all, from behind a beaded curtain, smoke still twirling around his head. But even in these sad surroundings there was inevitably a list, a catalogue of some sort, yellowed pages stuffed into a three-ring binder, and you could actually see what the place had in stock. In contrast, Netflix is opaque about its holdings because, as it turns out, its catalogue is remarkably unimpressive. Hunt for something as innocuous and popular as Hollywood musicals, and you’re bound to come up short—even South Pacific and Carousel are nowhere to be found. Forget about a catalogue: Netflix can’t even keep track of what you watched hours ago, and leaves you with the frustrating experience of scrolling through meaningless lists and categories looking for the last episode of that detective show that you were watching as you nodded off to sleep. This is most likely a deliberate glitch on Netflix’s part—a company that boasts so often about its algorithms should, after all, be able to create a simple database of its holdings. But Netflix needs you not to fixate on a single show and, instead, keep browsing through its endless set of what can only be described as crap. Netflix rules the world of video rentals, having chased away every neighborhood video store and even Blockbuster, but the Emperor has no DVDS. Yet, so far not many critics bother to point out that this gigantic corporation fails to pay much attention to the original basis of its business.
Most of what passes for media and technology criticism, whether the popular or academic sort, is at best an uncritical absorption of the idea that “new media” is somehow a radical departure from everything that came before. At worse, it’s thinly veiled boosterism. This sad state of affairs has meant that Netflix, at a relatively young age (twenty-one, just old enough to drink) and as the very rich new kid on the block, has seen very little actual scrutiny. Most analysts think of it as a god among corporations, a perception supported by Netflix’s own propagandizing of the idea that it alone holds the clue to the sort of algorithmic juggling that makes it so successful.
Netflix is not without innovations: it was the first to move away from the traditional rental model, eliminating late fees and quickly adopting streaming technology. Originally an online version of Blockbuster, the rental portal turned streaming service turned network slowly started moving into original programming (we might recall that “network,” in the traditional sense of the word, once meant “original programming”), but its catalogue of DVDs and items available for streaming remains a mystery, if it isn’t simply nonexistent. Perhaps some lowly VP in charge of content management has the master list on her computer or locked up in a safe. The rest of us have been left in the dark.
The open secret about Netflix is that its movie holdings have gone down. But its television catalogue has increased, mostly with its own shows. Despite being a corporation that makes about $12 billion a year, Netflix has largely escaped stringent critique, perhaps in part because it is still in the process of shape-shifting (given its relatively lackluster DVD offerings, it may well fold that part of its business in a few years) but mostly, I suspect, because critics, who are like magpies with shiny objects when it comes to anything new, are bedazzled by the seemingly endless number of shows that the corporation generates almost on a daily basis. Every time you log on you seem to encounter at least ten new “original programming” shows, all of which are instantly “trending” despite the fact that neither you nor anyone else has ever heard of them. Of course, since it’s a Netflix show, and only Netflix has access to any real data on viewing trends, no one can actually argue with Netflix’s insistence that all its shows are as popular as they are (and few notice when any are quietly disappeared, like a communist in Pinochet’s Chile). Thousands of film and television “critics” out there need something to write about, and Netflix provides them with a literally endless catalogue of what we can only refer to as crap because there really is no discernible pattern to what Netflix’s programming commitments are.
With one exception, that is: stand-up. In recent years, Netflix has given viewers approximately 200 “original” comedy shows (much of that is low-cost material, filmed at a preselected date at actual stand-up shows so the comic and the theater can charge a higher ticket price), and that number is likely to increase as the network seeks to maximize profits. Suddenly, everyone’s an audience member at a comedy show starring some of the biggest names in comedy, including Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, performing in some of the biggest arenas in the country. Stand-up has, in recent years, regained its popularity.
In recognition of this, The New York Times appointed Jason Zinoman its first Comedy Critic in 2011, lending an aura of respectability to a small and fraught genre of criticism. As a gatekeeper at one of the world’s most storied publications, Zinoman wields not inconsiderable power and influence but, like so many cultural critics today, is less an interpreter or analyst (you know: a critic) than a booster, especially when it comes to Netflix. Zinoman is quick to dismiss what he insists are cynical evaluations of its comedy shows. Reviewing The Comedy Lineup, a Netflix show comprised of fifteen-minute stand-up bits by various comedians, he anticipates possible criticisms of the current efflorescence in online comedy specials: “Many in comedy today think that too many specials are being released, that comics are not spending enough time developing their art and that a deluge of mediocre stand-up will water down quality. While these are real concerns, I’m not convinced.” His rationale is as follows, “For some of the stars of The Comedy Lineup, I would like to see longer performances, but not necessarily right now. It takes time to develop an hour of excellent material that fits together, and amid the glut of specials now, too many feel padded.” Zinoman here misses a crucial point: that a Netflix subscription, averaging $20 a month, to a corporation that is worth billions, should not have to pay for material that’s not particularly funny or is an “experiment.” Why should a viewer have to slough through fifteen-minute increments of comedy to see what bits of gold, like intact grains of corn in a patty of cowshit, might emerge? If his job as a comedy critic is not to point out what works and doesn’t, what is it?
“Netflix isn’t a homespun YouTube channel where we might excuse something that isn’t executed well.”
Zinoman, like many other cultural critics, ignores systemic issues and direct links between, say, pay scales and representations. His review of The Comedy Lineup, a show comprised mostly of people of color, skirts the fact that much of it is not particularly good. The only person he is even slightly critical of is a white woman, Taylor Tomlinson, when he writes of her introductory bit that “it’s funny but not…terribly original.” In fact, Tomlinson, a comic who is young but has years of experience, is the most polished of the bunch, and one of only two white comedians; the others are still thinking through how to even stand on stage. In contrast, Michelle Buteau, who is African American and whom Zinoman praises as “explosive,” is occasionally funny, but in the way you might expect from a somewhat entertaining guest at a party. Her trademark is a “Whaaaaaaa?” at the end of nearly every short bit, as if somehow that juvenile expression of dismay combined with irritation should stand in, no pun intended, for actual wit and humor. Phil Wang, who is Malay British and consequently interesting in that regard (if only to an American audience), is supremely awkward on stage, and it only takes a few minutes to realize that the awkwardness isn’t part of his schtick—he’s just awkward, and bad at comedy. There’s a lot to be said for creating a show where the majority of the performers are people of color, but it does no one, least of all other smart, funny comedians of color, any favors to have nearly all of them be raw and rough around the edges and then have the best of the lot be white. Surely, work with polish, done by people with experience, should count for something in a gigantic corporation. Netflix isn’t a homespun YouTube channel where we might excuse something that isn’t executed well. It doesn’t need to feed off the nervous energy of someone still learning their craft, and it should do its “experimenting” behind the camera and in boardrooms, before foisting hours and hours of mostly undistinguished work upon audiences already stuck with a bad set of options.
Zinoman reviewed Gadsby when her show was still a travelling performance, and his opinion of it—“remarkable”—did not differ from that of other critics. Far more interesting is his September 2018 profile, “The Netflix Executives Who Bent Comedy to Their Will,” of Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy programming, and Robbie Praw, its director of original stand-up. He acknowledges that most critics have pointed out that Netflix is successful with comedy because it simply outspends everyone else, but dismisses that appraisal by calling it a “cynical explanation.” The implication, of course, is that Netflix became successful with comedy because of some magical, unique qualities it brought to that endeavor, and all those mean critics are just full of sour grapes. Zinoman says that he was granted “rare, exclusive interviews,” but Netflix was under criticism from black women comics like Wanda Sykes and M’onique who complained about being paid far less than male comics: Zinoman barely touches upon this issue and lets the two get away with evasive responses when asked about it. As for being granted “exclusive” interviews: Netflix isn’t likely to have demurred at the chance to clear up controversies with the comedy critic of the Times.
Zinoman breathlessly repeats the same worshipful narrative that so many have already disseminated, that Netflix has somehow mastered the art of the algorithm (his Times co-worker Farhad Manjoo recently made the overblown claim that Netflix is “pushing cultural boundaries and sparking new conversations all over the world,” so perhaps there’s something in his work environment that breeds a peculiar combination of naiveté and an inability to think critically about the media megacorps that indirectly pay some critics’ bills). In the same breath, he first insists there is some secret and then admits he has no idea what that might be:
The Netflix system has more than 2,000 “taste clusters” that measure content by tone, timber and feeling to predict what you will want to see when you log onto the site. Netflix places more emphasis on whether a show is uplifting, somber, or redemptive than on genre or who the director is. But what do these new metrics say about comedy that the rest of us cannot see?
Netflix is famously tight-lipped about data. It won’t release audience information to the news media or comics, who would love to know who watches their specials to plan tours.
There’s a lot more of this sort of hushed reverence. Zinoman is so dazzled by Nishimura and Praw that he can’t acknowledge the most obvious fact: “taste clusters” is gobbledygook for “surveillance,” which is really how Netflix, like Facebook and every other internet-based corporation, mines what Zinoman so coyly terms “audience information.” Much of what Netflix recommends to me, for instance, is based on what we might once have called an educated guess. If I watched The Crown, it’s likely that I’ll watch Prince Philip: the Plot to Make a King. Netflix hasn’t done anything extraordinary in determining that: it’s simply seen what I watched and guessed that I might also watch the documentary on Prince Philip. But what Netflix won’t be able to determine is that I watched both because I’m writing about representation and the British monarchy and that I hate, loathe, and despise the institution. Which is to say: Netflix isn’t building up any particularly useful cache of information about me. I’m not tied to “Movies on the British Monarchy” or whatever category—pardon me, “taste cluster”—in which Netflix places me.
Of course, most people are not cultural critics who watch documentaries on the royal family for work, all the while angrily thinking of ways a modern revolution might put an end to it. Most people do have specific tastes and dislikes. But people also watch shows and movies for reasons that might change over time. Sure, Netflix has some incredibly sophisticated software that can measure all kinds of data about our shifting tastes, but that data is just data. Which is to say, information mined by surveilling us every time we browse or watch anything on Netflix.
But of course, if Zinoman were to write an analysis that actually acknowledged the surveillant nature of how Netflix did it—“it” being making so much money off its enterprise with so few actual offerings—he would be out of a job. Instead, he writes that the two executives tell a story, “one in which iconoclasm, new metrics, and abiding faith in the algorithm disrupt the stale conventions of an industry.”
Anyone who has an “abiding faith in the algorithm” and has developed “new metrics” cannot, by definition, be any kind of an iconoclast, because espousing a belief in anything as bullshitty as algorithms and metrics actually means you’re drawing within the lines, because those are long-established industry standards. All of “new media” is based on algorithms (which are only mastered by the “experts” whose careers are based on developing them) and metrics. They may be “new” metrics, but they’re still metrics. Metrics are the very definition of the “stale conventions of an industry.” The phrase “new metrics” is, like “jumbo shrimp”: meaningless (to borrow from the late Anthony Bourdain). Consider how often Facebook, for instance, misdiagnoses your tastes—how many times did you actually say to yourself, Why, yes, I do need a cheese grater in the shape of the Empire State Building—that is exactly what I was thinking about. Neither Netflix nor Facebook care that they often get your tastes wrong: all they need is .1% of readers to click on ads for them to make money. The fact that Facebook can show you ads for the exact same item you bought yesterday doesn’t suggest a mastery of algorithms. It suggests, rather, that it has been surveilling you intensely and is now hoping you’ll buy that strange-looking but very fashionable furry toy animal again—with no idea you only bought the first one because your five-year-old niece will be visiting this weekend and you want to be the cool aunty.
In the world of mathematics, algorithms are predictive formulations designed to provide informed hypotheses. In the world of media, algorithm is just a word that makes surveillance look like a scientific inevitability. Not only does Zinoman avoid such matters in his piece, he essentially colludes with his subjects to skirt the question of equal or even equivalent pay for black women comics, never really confronting it head on and allowing them to get away with evasive responses involving, again, metrics. And worse, he lets them turn it all into a matter of representation, practically congratulating them for including more black women comics in their shows rather than calling them out for not paying them as much as other comics. Should we have more black women in comedy shows? Of course! Can they be paid as much as their black and white male counterparts? Look! Data!
Zinoman is the classic white liberal: willing to think about race and ethnicity issues only as long as they have to do with representation, which is cheap and earns points in the public eye, without angering fellow white (and racist) liberals: the typical Times reader would be up in arms about black women getting paid as much as anyone else (even if passive-aggressively, and without admitting to their inherent racial bias, which might make them seem too much like Trumpites). Paying women of color comics much less than white women or men is itself a decision based on algorithms: Praw readily admits that such decisions are derived from social metrics, what Zinoman handily calls “the usual data.” There’s nothing disruptive about a practice that reinforces gendered and racial inequity. It’s business as usual. If Netflix had, instead, said that it would spend some of its billions in cultivating and encouraging more comics of color or if it had decided, horrors, that all of its comics would get the same, say, ten million, or one million, or a few hundred thousand, that would be new and news. Instead, boosted by Zinoman’s silence on the matter, they go on to extrude the usual mumbo jumbo about their mastery of data. There are no algorithms in place, just the profit motive.
Which, in one sense, is fine. Netflix is a corporation like any other, and we have no reason to expect them to behave differently. If they occasionally throw wads of cash towards charities or create programming designed to make us think of social justice, or pull the wool over the eyes of willing cultural critics ready to swallow their public relations coup as exclusive interviews, we’re generally happy to leave them alone. The problem is when critics like Zinoman ignore Netflix’s corporatized vision of programming and aid and abet its key executives in creating and disseminating fantasies steeped in the rubbishy jargon of algorithms and data without admitting to the rather old-fashioned profit motives that are at play. But, again, if Zinoman were actually honest about Netflix, he would be out of a job.
The most disingenuous part of the profile is also what’s missing from nearly every other analysis of the Netflix comedy explosion: that it works for the network because it is literally the cheapest way to make massive profits.
Think about it. An actual television show costs money. The Crown is said to have cost $13 million per episode in its first season of six episodes. In contrast, a “comedy special” that is, like Nanette, simply a recording of a live event, requires comparatively few costs in terms of costuming or makeup or set design and production. All that has to happen is for a crew to go in, set up cameras, and shoot the comics doing what they’d already be doing. This is not, at all, to dismiss the work of stand-ups, and that of directing, editing, and producing their shows, but the efforts are on a far different scale than series like The Crown or Stranger Things. The profits, however, are immense in contrast.
Andy Warhol famously said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. The words were attributed to Warhol in the late 1960s, and the future is now, where fifteen minutes is equal to six months in internet time and social media celebrities come and go with the online lifespans of mayflies. In the future, everyone will have to be an Instagram personality or die trying. In the future, everyone, including your fifteen-year-old neighbor, will have performed a TED talk. In the future, every tiresome guest at the party, like that guy with the boring joke about the koala on the cricket field, will have had a Netflix comedy special.
All of this made Netflix, with an international reach that extends to 190 countries and more than a few continents, the perfect vehicle for Nanette, a comedy special that was instantly revered because, supposedly, it is no mere comedy. But the seemingly sudden success of a show centered around a Tasmanian lesbian is also embedded in a long history of lesbian comedy.
III. (Bad) Lesbian Comedy
There’s a slap on my back
I find another butch, hat cocked, and we
We put our hands in the crowd
And over and over
We jump up and down
—Le Tigre, “Viz”
Stand-up has always been dominated by white men, with notable exceptions. The fact that we can all rattle off a dozen exceptions to this rule doesn't change the fact that for every Richard Pryor or Wanda Sykes there are a thousand Louis CKs and Jerry Seinfelds and Gallaghers and Louie Andersons and Emo Philips and Dane Cooks. In this context, lesbian comics—out women who also happen to be comics—have mostly been a novelty. The most famous lesbian comic is not Hannah Gadsby but Ellen DeGeneres. Like other comics of her generation, DeGeneres honed her material in comedy clubs before getting her breaks on television. Her eponymous daytime show is ranked among the top three in the genre in the United States. But in 1998, such success must have seemed a distant fantasy when ABC cancelled her sitcom Ellen after four years. The most widely circulated story about the cancellation is that the network caved in to the backlash to DeGeneres’s coming out episode, “The Puppy Episode.” As she and others tell the story, she was driven out into the wilderness and only made it back after years of desolation, in the process helping to “change the hearts and minds of million of Americans, accelerating our nation’s constant drive towards equality and acceptance for all,” as Barack Obama put it when he bestowed the Medal of Freedom on her in 2016.
But lost in the mythology of homophobia and the Return of the Cast-Out Lesbian are several facts. DeGeneres never really needed to come out; her sexuality was an open secret, especially among queers (oh, we knew, we knew), and the show was popular to a great extent because varied parts of the viewing public knew or did not know, and the resulting tension was an underground national joke. She came out on Oprah, in a highly publicized and watched interview, the same week of “The Puppy Episode,” the highest rated episode of Ellen, which went on to run for one more entire season. The show’s ratings declined after that episode, and there was talk of the producers and DeGeneres having creative differences. If you actually watched Ellen at the time, you would remember that it became boring very quickly (and it had never been great to begin with): the tension between knowing and not knowing may well have helped to maintain interest in an otherwise tepid show. At the time networks were less likely to cancel sitcoms after just one season. Today, with hundreds of networks competing for attention across multiple platforms, the stakes are much higher and shows that don’t perform well in the first few episodes are immediately axed. There is talk that Disney, ABC’s parent company, was uncomfortable with the gay plot elements, but nothing has ever been confirmed. What is confirmed is that DeGeneres got a second sitcom, on CBS, named The Ellen Show, this time with an out lesbian lead character, only two years later, a fairly quick turnaround for anyone, and an indication that she was not exactly persona non grata. The new show also bore her name, by now attached to the most famous out lesbian in the country. This could not have happened if homophobia had been so pervasive at the time that an entire show could be cancelled on account of it (and we might recall that Melissa Etheridge’s career skyrocketed after she came out). That second sitcom was cancelled in 2001, after 13 episodes, with five additional ones remaining unaired. Two years later, NBC gave DeGeneres her daytime talk show, named The Ellen DeGeneres Show (commonly referred to as just Ellen), which has been on the air for fifteen long and incredibly lucrative years.
We have here a verifiable series of events wherein a prominent lesbian comic was given, on each of what were then the three biggest networks, three separate shows over the course of a decade, with the last of them still running and renewed till 2020. Yet the story that the lesbian in question was driven out of television persists, sustaining the idea that hers is a success story about a woman who persevered despite all odds and who managed to defeat homophobia and triumph with her authentic self intact.
While there was certainly homophobic opposition to DeGeneres upon her coming out, there is no strong evidence that it was the reason for her losing the first show. And the fact that she returned to television, very quickly and twice, in quick succession, is noteworthy because it happens so rarely to other performers. Her current show is enormously successful, but its success has very little to do with any new acceptance of DeGeneres as a lesbian. Rather, she succeeds because the format is best suited to DeGeneres’s talent, as a host with a quirky but nonthreatening presence, someone best described as “goofy,” able to combine a slightly adolescent sense of humor with social-justicey themes that are never too serious or to be taken too seriously: she crossed the picket line during the Writers Strike in 2007 after just one day. By contrast, she wept on air for a week over a stray dog. Having had its main character come out, Ellen could not sustain interest in anything beyond that single moment, and the writing suffered for taking the politics of representation so literally (later episodes dealt mostly with lesbian and coming out themes). In contrast, the current talk show, where she moves adroitly between topics and tone, allows her to combine a form of clowning with just enough serious material to give it a slight (but not too much!) heft. And it uses a format familiar to fans of Oprah, of gift-giving to the audience and literal dancing in the aisles. DeGeneres, who has maintained a high-octane, elfin, perkiness throughout her career, has found her niche as America’s Favourite Daughter Who Happens to Be a Lesbian. (Unsurprisingly, she also has her own Netflix comedy special. The name? Relatable. Meant ironically, of course.)
Unlike Hannah Gadsby, Ellen DeGeneres does not have stories of deep sexual trauma to share—at least not yet. But their careers are parallel in that each woman’s success is due to a narrative about how her lesbianism or her gender was instrumental in denying her access to success and resulted in her being ostracised (in Gadsby’s case, with far more brutality and violence). Gadsby is not a particularly good standup comic, and owes her current success not to the quality of her routine but to the enormous amount of liberal and left guilt she has managed to awaken, the crashing waves of which drown out any critique of her politics which straight people in particular—still in power everywhere—will not make for fear of seeming homophobic (more on that later). In the case of DeGeneres, it’s clear that her career wasn’t ruined by coming out, but that, rather, she’s mined the episode to incite liberal and progressive guilt for support to this day.
No doubt, homophobia is a main reason why we don’t see more out lesbians on the comedy circuit. But the dark truth that few will admit to is that lesbian comedy tends to be insufferably bad, sustained mostly by loyal lesbians who will consistently show up to support their own, regardless of the quality of the work. There are, of course, exceptions like Lily Tomlin and Wanda Sykes, but it’s fair to say that the phrase “bad lesbian comedy” really doesn’t need one of the qualifiers. (Don’t @ me, ladies. You know it’s true.)
To be fair, it isn’t just lesbians. Openly gay comedians like Mario Cantone and Mo Rocca are at least as unfunny as Hannah Gadsby and Tig Notaro and, may our cats save us, Reno. Indeed, most of what we might loosely term identity-based comedy borders on unwatchable, and is sustained by audiences eager to support voices that have historically been marginalized. If you’ve listened to 30 minutes of Hari Kondabolu, you’ve heard nearly every other comedian of Asian descent: there’s the inevitable set of TSA jokes, there are the stock jokes about Asian parents with their demands that their children succeed (and not become comics), there are all the anecdotes about taking Asian food to school. Again, there are exceptions like Ali Wong and Aziz Ansari, but they only serve to highlight the lack of talent among their peers. Or consider Iliza Schlesinger, a straight white woman whose target is gender and the relations between men and women—she has, at last count, two specials on Netflix, and they’re interchangeable. But the difference between most identity-based comics and lesbian comics is that the latter think that actually being funny isn’t really the point of comedy.
Take, for instance, Kate Clinton, in this routine, where she talks about a woman who takes a new partner to her parents as part of her coming out. We listen, eagerly waiting to laugh at a great closing line, but our hopes are speared on the altar of Lesbian Earnestness as Clinton gives us a tired little homily about how lesbians who come out are giving this world “an opportunity to grow.”
Or consider Tig Notaro, whose persona is Nice Lesbian Mom. One of her “bits” in the Netflix special Happy to be Here, has her leaving the stage, pretending to introduce the lesbian folk duo The Indigo Girls. This happens at least twice: I confess, Dear Reader, that the depth and pain of my boredom by that point meant that I lost the patience to watch the special all the way through to the end to see if, in fact, The Indigo Girls did emerge. Ira Glass effusively states that Notaro is not afraid of the silences. We might more accurately state that Notaro is not afraid to bore her audiences to death. Perhaps that’s because she’s had so much time to get used to it.
Lesbian comics tend to assume that they don’t actually have to work on the material at hand, that the sheer force of its lesbianism will be enough to make people listen, and they ramble on without much point, secure in the knowledge that their audiences will stay to watch the lesbian comic. In this they are greatly aided by the fact that lesbians always show up for other lesbians, no matter how potentially bad the performance. This is, to be fair, one of the more endearing qualities of the lesbian community: its will to be supportive of its own no matter what (what else could explain the endless career of the Indigo Girls?). The problem is that this blind support doesn’t do much to foster work that is actually, you know, interesting. With comedy, lesbians are counterintuitive, believing that their task is not to be funny but to engage in some kind of dialogue with the audience that will lead everyone to higher consciousness. And social justice and art almost never make a good combination, when the social justice in question is thrust into the art with a combination of deep earnestness and ham-fistedness (“You will be transformed by this work!”). Especially in the era of Trump, there’s a great deal of hand wringing around the question, “How can art perform social justice?” when, really, the question ought to be, “When will we realize that demanding an overt social justice agenda from art is guaranteed to ruin it?”
In lesbian comedy, that sense of needing to conform to a social justice agenda is closely linked to the idea of authenticity, and authenticity itself is linked to the idea of a pure, unchanging self that is immutably tied to biology. “Authentic self” is a phrase used often to define queer existence: these days, it’s most often used to justify trans lives. The problem is that “authenticity” becomes a way to define a self as fixed, stable, and unchanging.
Enter, again, Hannah Gadsby who at the very beginning of Nanette assures her audience that “Homosexuality is not a choice.” This assertion comes at the top of the show and provides a crucial marker of both authenticity and legibility to a mostly straight crowd. Straight culture is particularly enamoured of the idea that gays and lesbians cannot help who they are; anthems of tolerance made popular by pop icons like Cyndi Lauper and Lady Gaga rest upon the idea of a gay gene. Without proof that we simply cannot help who we are, most straight people would be perfectly happy to deny us basic rights. To them, we’re like baby elephants in a china shop—cute and lumbering—and if we break things on occasion or crap on the floor, it’s because we simply are who we are. The obverse of this, of course, is that “they are who they are” becomes just another way of saying, “These are filthy, disgusting creatures, but they are who they are and can’t help it, so let’s give them a pittance of rights here and there and tolerate them as best as we can.” If, tomorrow, a series of verifiable and strong scientific studies emerged proving that, in fact, sexuality is a matter of choice, that LGBTQ people choose to be such (“On my thirteenth birthday, I decided to try being a lesbian for five years, and then bisexual for another five, and finally reverted back to being straight”), we would all be herded to a large, dark dungeon and beaten to death with nary a peep of protest from our straight former “allies.” “Homosexuality is not a choice” is a mantra that gives straight people an immediately legible way to affirm the right of queer people to exist; it reassures them that we are neither threatening nor unstable, and that we know our place as sexual minorities. It also, importantly, gives them the illusion that heterosexuality is fixed and stable. Open the Pandora’s Box of “choice”—suggest for even a second that perhaps sexuality is unstable, quirky, subject to change, like a shape-shifting monster on an orgiastic rampage, and all hell would break loose. We must be contained, and “not a choice” locks us into place.
Gadsby’s popularity is based on the idea of authenticity, an authenticity that derives from the clear evidence of emotion in Nanette. In parts she seems to be crying through her words as she relates the details of her trauma as well as her assured declaration that she was born this way. If Ellen DeGeneres is, in a sense, the first generation of The Lesbian Who Came Out, Hannah Gadsby represents the next inevitable step, but this time in a world where to be out as a lesbian comic is passé. This time around, the world doesn’t get a mere lesbian: it gets Hannah Gadsby, Super Lesbian, a Lesbian Christ the Redeemer, hovering above us with her arms outstretched, telling us of her trauma in stark, brutal terms. If anyone wants to understand what lesbianism is, and to prove that they have shown penitence for even any inadvertent displays of homophobia, they must bow in front of the Altar of Nanette.
IV. The Trouble with Classicists: Or, Hannah Gadsby Goes Back to Art School
Well, people try to pick up girls
And they get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
—Johnathan Richman, “Pablo Picasso”
Gadsby’s discussion of homosexuality and choice has not been discussed very much in all the analyses of Nanette, but her diatribes against two of the most famous male artists, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, have been widely circulated. Much has been made of the fact that Gadsby has a degree in art history, as if that somehow lends an expert gloss to her pronouncements. But having a degree in art history does not make you an art historian, just as having a degree in biology doesn’t make you a doctor.
Gadsby’s sense of how art functions—and what it is—often sounds like something out of a Buzzfeed listicle, or a feminist tract entitled Why Male Artists Are Horrible and Women Are Awesome. She criticizes Picasso for what she calls his misogyny, but she also makes it clear that she hates Cubism or, as she refers to it with drawn-out contempt, “Cuuuuuuubism,” spitting the word out like a cat disgorging a hairball. Her criticism of Van Gogh is harder to pin down, because it’s mostly a scattershot and often rather callous and mean-spirited mockery of the artist for a range of issues, including what she describes as his inability to “network” (a strangely anachronistic way of describing someone who lived between the years 1853 and 1890). Her tirade against Picasso has begun to crop up in current discussions about #MeToo and the art world. But while all of this seems like a fairly conventional set of feminist critiques of modern art, her issues with these two artists in particular reveal that her belief in an authentic lesbian, feminine self is entirely bound up in creating a dark, murky opposition to it: a world of representation where the self is not just destroyed but considered a fundamentally unstable point of reference.
Her words on Picasso are worth quoting at length:
Pablo Picasso: I hate him. But you’re not allowed to. I hate him. But you can’t: “Cuuubism.” And if you ruin Cuuubism then civilization as we know it will crumble. Cubism aren’t we grateful...we live in a post-cubism world...I don’t like Picasso, I fucking hate him. He’s rotten in the face cavity — I hate Picasso! I hate him and you can’t make me like him! ... And I know I should be more generous about him too because he suffered, he suffered a mental illness. But you see, nobody knows that because it doesn’t fit with his mythology. They go, “I think you’re thinking of Van Gogh” [the name is pronounced mockingly, with an over-emphasis on the Dutch pronunciation]. Nah, I’m thinking about them all, actually.
Because Picasso is sold to us as this passionate, virile, tormented genius man-ball-sack. There’s no room in that story for [makes a caricature of a sad face], is there? He did suffer a mental illness. Picasso did suffer badly and it got worse as he got older. Picasso suffered from the mental illness of misogyny...“Is misogyny a mental illness?” [mimicking someone else asking that question] Yeah, yeah it is. Especially if you’re a heterosexual man, because if you hate what you desire, do you know what that is? Fucking tense! He did suffer from a mental illness...He was [a misogynist]. If you don’t believe me, let me provide a quote from Picky-asshole himself. He said, “Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.” Cool guy. The greatest artist of the twentieth century? Let’s make art great again, guys.
Picasso fucked an underage girl and that’s it for me. Not interested. [In mocking tone] “But Cubism. We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter, she was 17 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah, it actually does. But as Picasso said, “No, it was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” I probably read that when I was 17. Do you know how grim that was? “Oh, I’m in my prime. Oh, there is no view at my peak.” But I wasn’t upset at the time because I was learning about Cuuubism.
Now I should qualify this, though. Cubism is important. You know, it really is, it was a real game-changer. Picasso freed us from slavery, people, he really did. He freed us from the slavery of having to reproduce believable three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. Three-point perspective, that illusion that gives us the idea of a single, stable worldview, a single perspective? Picasso said, “No! Run free! You can have all the perspectives!” Because that’s what we need, all of the perspectives at once, from above, from below, inside out, the sides. All the perspectives at once! Thank you, Picasso. What a guy. What a hero. Thank you. But tell me: any of those perspectives a woman’s? No. Well, I’m not fucking interested. You just put a kaleidoscope filter on your cock. You’re still painting flesh vases for your dick flowers. Separate the man from the art, that’s what I keep hearing….Yeah, all right. Okay, let’s give it a go. How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings there and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Fucking nothing [in rage]. Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!
It would take several different treatises to explain everything that is wrong and misguided and even dangerously conservative in that passage, but for now:
Certainly, what we call Western Art is suffused with sexism and outright misogyny, and women have historically been rendered as objects of what is now known even in non-art circles as The Male Gaze (“flesh vases for your dick flowers” is Gadsby’s colorful and not entirely misguided summation of all this; “kaleidoscope filter on your cock” is somewhat less clear). Who gets to be anointed a Great Artist has a lot or even everything to do with issues of power and money and certainly gender, a point that Gadsby also makes elsewhere in the show. But while Gadsby’s (now hugely popular and viral) statements about the art world are based on some truth, nearly everything she has to say about art and representation is embedded in a deeply conservative view of what art should mean in the world.
Gadsby’s invective against Picasso has her pointing out that there is no “single, stable worldview, a single perspective” in his work, a formalist criticism that is generally made by those who detest modern art for its departure from classical norms of representation. She moves quickly from this to ask if “any” of the perspectives he showed were “a woman’s perspective.” No doubt, Gadsby and her fans will insist that this is artful wordplay, but wordplay has to make sense, and here it is strange and rather ridiculous that she seems to not grasp that “perspective” in the matter of artistic representation means the use of a technique of rendering the illusion of depth on a flat surface. It has nothing to do with a “woman’s perspective” (or a man’s for that matter), where the appropriate word would be “worldview.” As if this were not itself singularly perplexing: Gadsby completely ignores the fact that there are prominent—and often unrecognized—female Cubist artists like Marie Laurencin. Which is to say, once again, that the problem isn’t that cubism is a masculine ideology, but that the art world is dominated by men.
It’s Picasso’s relationship to his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter that most incites Gadsby’s rage and fury. Gadsby’s anger is marked by the sort of moralizing that seems more fit for an arch-conservative—she spits out the fact that he was married, horrors, with a Bible-thumper’s scorn for infidelity. Her contention that he had “sex with an underage girl” makes it seem like Picasso had raped a child. In a strictly legal sense, though, even putting aside all the issues we might have with the law’s definition of “underage,” this is not actually true. In France, what we might call the age of consent was 13 in 1947, when the two met, and it is now 15 (although, as with all things French, the matter is...complicated). In Australia, where Netflix filmed Nanette, the age is either 16 or 17, depending on where you are. In the United States, the legal age for sex ranges from 16 to 18.
Putting aside the historical inaccuracy of Gadsby’s comment about sex with “underage” women (and acknowledging that not all intergenerational sex is unproblematic): it’s really fucking weird to see a queer person be so invested in arbitrary distinctions between legal and illegal sexual behaviors. Gadsby herself points out, early in Nanette, that homosexuality was against the law until 1997 in Tasmania, that she grew up knowing that 70 percent of Tasmanians believed that homosexuality was wrong, and that she had internalized that logic. Certainly, the combination of internalized homophobia and shame is a deadly problem that afflicts millions of queer people, and we cannot expect everyone, especially the young and vulnerable, to magically turn into Queer Superheroes who dismantle such violent impositions of sexuality with a copy of Gender Trouble and a sassy flick of the wrist. But the idea that laws about sexuality are only created to keep an entire population in fear is literally the foundation of her entire show: she traces her own abuse, her sense of a lack of self-worth back to that legal construction of illegality.
Gays and lesbians have, historically, been hounded, “treated,” demonized, brutalized, and even killed precisely because “laws” everywhere, including those defining sexual consent, have sought to demarcate their bodies and actions as illegal. Given this history, the sight of a lesbian—an urbane, cosmopolitan, adult lesbian who is surely not unaware of critical approaches to sex and the law, or with the long history of queer resistance to such laws, so vociferously (and incorrectly, even in the legal sense) denouncing sex between a man and a woman is incongruous and disheartening. Gadsby makes much of the self-hatred she felt as a result of knowing that the vast majority of Tasmanians hated people like her—but she fails to understand (or willfully refuses to see) how laws don’t emerge from reality but create and shape it. One would think that someone so concerned with laws determining legality and illegality on the axes of gender and sexuality, and how wrong they are would at least question the idea of an “underage girl.”
As for the art itself: if Cubism dispensed with the prevailing formal bases of representation, like lines of perspective, it was also a fundamental challenge to the idea that the self was what it had been construed to be in times prior. “Cuuubism” gave us Picasso’s Guernica, which evacuated war of color and refused to provide a direct representation because it deemed realism an insufficient medium through which to represent the horrors of war. Yet, Gadsby, in her denunciations of Picasso, can only focus on certain elements of his life and what she derides as the literal distortions present in his art, as if he had distorted his images not to reveal something new about the world but to conceal something nefarious in himself.
“The story is, in fact, a cheap parlor trick, which is what most of Gadsby’s knowledge about art sounds like.”
If Picasso is dismissed because of his misogyny, Vincent Van Gogh, whose work and life she approaches as reductively as those of Picasso, is derided and demeaned in shockingly mean-spirited terms that include her mocking his mental problems and his inability to mingle with people. In her discussion of the Dutch artist, whose name she pronounces with a contemptuously exaggerated Dutch accent, she begins by criticizing the idea that his genius was greatly enabled by his untreated mental health issues. If Van Gogh hadn’t taken drugs for his condition, she tells us confidently, we wouldn’t have his sunflowers. She backs this claim with a widely-circulated story about Van Gogh and digitalis, which was prescribed to him to treat his epilepsy. An overdose can cause blurred or yellow vision, and some have held that the artist’s fondness for the color was a result of the medication. Or, as Gadsby put it, “So perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated.”
The story about Van Gogh and digitalis has been widely debunked. Even a cursory google search yields several reports, like this, this, and this one, and his letters indicate a fondness for yellow that couldn’t just have been induced by a drug. The story is, in fact, a cheap parlor trick, which is what most of Gadsby’s knowledge about art sounds like, if not simply evidence of the slimness of Gadsby’s scholarship. Her theories, if that isn’t too generous a term, about art are reductive, a Cliffs Notes version of “Art Through History,” and she seems equally unfamiliar with how art is created or functions in the world. But on a Netflix special, her meager knowledge elicits gasps of wonderment, becomes etched into reality, and circulates as fact.
For Gadsby, a tree needs to look like a tree, and Van Gogh’s work would be much better, in her estimation, if it were not so vivid, so expressive of a shattered self and a shattered world. She cannot abide the idea that Van Gogh’s yellows might actually be a representation of a world as he saw it, and locating that vividness instead in a biological problem is her way of containing and explaining away what is, in essence, a vivid perception of reality that is not drug-induced but a very particular form of reality.
Gadsby reduces artists and artistic endeavour to individualized patterns of behaviour, ignoring the political and cultural contexts at play. In much the same way, she reduces systemic problems like misogyny, which isn’t a “mental illness” but a product of the systemic devaluation and exploitation of women—to individual acts of sexism. She cannot see—or refuses to acknowledge—that all representation is inherently political, a strange blind spot for someone whose entire show rests on the idea that women have not been given their space.
It makes, then, complete sense that she should have such a loathing for modern art, which, along with the emergent field and discourse of psychoanalysis, disputed the very idea of a singular, unified self (Freud was only three years younger than Van Gogh, and the germs of psychoanalysis had begun to spread by the time of the latter’s death). In Gadsby’s world, and the world of #MeToo, the self begins as a unified entity, is broken by trauma, but is healed by storytelling, which returns the self to its moment of truth.
Giving Nanette the last stamp of authenticity is Gadsby’s declaration that she is leaving comedy, denouncing its ability to make people laugh as a way to make us avoid hard truths. Like warriors in ancient battles placing a dead Viking in a burning boat and setting it afloat towards Valhalla, audiences everywhere wept copious online tears about this departure and what had brought it about.
Gadsby has since explained her point about “leaving comedy” as some kind of natural progression she had to act out, but it feels a hell of a lot like a publicity stunt, perhaps one of the most savvy—and cynical—in recent years. She’s certainly seemed happy enough to milk the success of Nanette, supposedly a result of trauma, to gain numerous lucrative and prominent gigs. But the fact that Gadsby speaks about leaving comedy and declares it a failure because it makes us laugh, should make us wonder if we might want to condemn tragedy or drama for doing the opposite.
Nanette is not a brilliant reworking of comedy that redefines the genre; it is simply comedy that fails as such. As Helen Razer and Soraya Roberts have pointed out, there is a long tradition of comics like Richard Pryor taking comedy to dark places and making it, well, comedy. Nanette is nothing but a 21st-century version of the Sad Clown Story: behind every laughing face lies a long tale of woe, and so on. There is much to be said for the space it provides for a certain kind of queer and female representation, but by the end, Gadsby stands against everything queers and feminists have fought for, including the right to not be determined by arbitrary laws. Ultimately, Nanette was not successful because millions of queers vaulted it into public attention. Its popularity has everything to do with affirming straight culture’s need to understand sexual and gender identity life as one born of trauma, and it comes packaged in some of the most conservative renderings of queerness and gender, including the idea that homosexuality is never a choice.
Nanette is awful, and it’s time we gave ourselves permission to think and say that out loud. Its few patches of genuine comedy eventually lead to giant yawning holes of intellectual chicanery masquerading as Deep and Profound Thought. Nanette assures viewers, especially straight ones, that queers and women can and must be understood and assimilated by first understanding us as uniquely and literally broken and bashed in. It isn’t comedy that is broken in Nanette, but queer life and feminism. Worse, the breaking of queerness comes about via Gadsby offering straight people in particular the assurance that this is a globally universal experience. Gadsby offers Nanette as a mirror to herself, and her self becomes a stand in for queers and women everywhere. If she had simply discussed her own story, Nanette would simply be an account of one woman’s trauma, but Gadsby takes it much, much further. She frames her story in a very particular, prescriptive, and retrograde vision of sexuality (“homosexuality is not a choice”) and in a denunciation of art that looks like a massive feminist takedown of male artists but is in fact embedded in a vision of the self that allows no place for the fragmented and fragmentary nature of experience and life itself.
In a New Yorker piece, Moira Donegan writes in a review of Gadsby: “In her Netflix special, the crowd is rapt. People are paying attention.” What price do we pay for that attention, and to its accompanying demand that the most vulnerable among us constantly enact our trauma in public in order to legitimize ourselves as authentic?
In an era of Trump, we imagine that dystopia looks like The Handmaid’s Tale, where women in red are clearly marked as walking uteruses that will reproduce for the Republic of Gilead. But trauma is increasingly becoming the mark of honor in today’s vomitous culture of constant revelation. Hannah Gadsby and other high-profile confessors will be fine, with access to the kind of counselling and other services that exist to ease victims of trauma back into everyday life. But texts like Nanette create dramas of revelation and exposure that serve as templates for everyone else, and reinforce an already widespread cultural prerequisite that women in particular continually define themselves by their traumatized selves. Attend any social justice event on matters like prison abolition and you will find panels of mostly women, mostly women of color, often LGBTQ-identified, beginning their presentations with their tales of trauma. People who do this have spoken (usually privately, and only in trusted circles) that they are often explicitly told, by funders and “allies,” that they must present their tales of woe if they want to be taken seriously. At first, all the attention can seem heady, but the costs of all this revelation eventually reveal themselves in breakdowns of different kinds: sooner or later, the psyche, in revolt from having to get up in front of yet another audience and replay painful memories, shuts down. In an even wider arena: anyone who has worked with LGBT or straight asylum seekers and refugees knows that the process of application involves long and often deeply painful and re-traumatizing hours of recounting grueling details of abuse and trauma in front of judges in order to prove that their claims are authentic. You could provide testimony from world-renowned experts that the people in your country are ready to burn you at the stake, but all that pales if a judge decides you don’t seem traumatized enough. Asylum seekers have a burden to properly act like they have suffered, and there have been cases of judges deeming that someone does not look the part.
Autistic people shouldn’t have to be geniuses (Gadsby has placed herself on the spectrum), people with disabilities don’t have to be lovely and gentle and adept in negotiating a world that is often fundamentally hostile to their basic needs, and women and queers shouldn’t have to be raped and then endlessly repeat their stories of being raped in order to define who they are. In a bizarre but deeply untheorized set of events, the era of #MeToo has meant that rape has become a condition by which women are granted legibility as women. Under the terms set by Nanette, those of us with no stories or who refuse to tell our stories are now banished. In its place is a global aesthetic of trauma which alone grants us entrance, even citizenship, in this world.
Nanette circulates in a very particular moment, when it seems like Americans in particular are newly compassionate in their shock and horror at having discovered, for instance, that children are separated from their parents at the border. But the outrage is based on a desire to see Trump as the origin of such horrible policies, even though they were put in place by his Democratic predecessors and their compassion relies on the image of the immigrant as a sad creature who must be saved by heroic (and mostly white) Americans. The same is true of the general cultural attitude towards women and #MeToo: the women who come out must all be victims, and can never reveal that some of their relationships with their abusers might have been more complicated than simply those between predatory rapists and victims taken completely aback by the attack. As the case of Asia Argento indicates, it’s entirely possible to be raped even by a man with whom you develop a professional and personal relationship because capitalism works to denude people of agency in exploitative circumstances. It’s also entirely possible that the desire for power and fame is such that people see abuse as a trade-off, but despite Sharon Stone’s quip that “You can only sleep your way to the middle,” there’s no place in culture for acknowledgement of the price that more than a few people are willing to pay for obscene wealth and fame and respect far out of scale to any of their accomplishments. Add to all of this the fact that women of color in particular are required to demonstrate authenticity with racialized narratives of trauma (as with Oprah), and consider that much of this demand that women be authentically traumatized to prove their very womanhood comes not from right-wingers but the broad spectrum of the liberal-progressive left. Your trauma is your passport, and without it you will not be allowed entrance into public or even private spheres. You will not be considered authentic enough.
Nanette is read as a kind of spontaneous combustion, a natural occurrence like a wildfire swooshing in to rid us of the old debris and regenerate new growth. But it has long histories: in the rapidly growing media consolidation where even critics at venerable newspapers are too terrified to question the garbled tales of algorithms vomited out at them by cunning executives; in duplicitous tales of marginalization of sexual minorities; in a growing demand that women must at all times perform their trauma in public, and that the trauma must be a sexual one.
Like some fabled statue of the Madonna that, the legend goes, sheds real tears, we are admonished to believe in the miracle of Nanette, to accept without question that it is supremely relevant, that it reveals everything, that it “broke” everything. In Forbes, no less, Dolly Chugh informs us that “Hannah Gadsby Is Going to Make You a Better Leader” because “When we listen to Gadsby, our leadership practice is to bear witness to her pain in its unfixable form.” But what if, instead of trying to “bear witness,” we simply set about creating systems that allowed those wounded by brutality to receive whatever they needed without having to constantly perform what happened to them? Nanette and Hannah Gadsby are part of a growing movement that seeks to seal us into a public discourse of eternal and constantly re-enacted trauma, which paradoxically claims that the pain of reliving and revealing your trauma is the only way to ease it. It’s time to break that seal and to break free of the cult of Nanette. It’s time to break free of the idea that we, whether queers, women, victims of trauma, or any combination thereof, need to turn ourselves inside out in order to gain recognition or rights.
Many thanks to Gautham Reddy, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, Matt Simonette, and Kate Sosin for reading, discussing, and providing feedback on drafts of this work, and many thanks to Leah Gipson, Craig Harshaw, and Helen Razer for several enlivening conversations on all of this.